Dubai airport is sleek and busy with duty free shoppers. I get my visa from an Emirati immigration officer dressed in a traditional white gown and head cover. As it will turn out, he will be one the only Emirati citizen I will come into contact with. Everyone else is foreign: waiters, salespeople, guides, taxi drivers, hotel staff. Only about 10-15% of the population of United Arab Emirates are Emirati citizens, the rest being European and American expats as well as service and construction workers from the Middle East and South Asia.
I watch this surreal city through the darkened windows of my cab. Walking is not an option, as there are no pavements. The roads are wide, smooth, lined with palm trees and spotlessly maintained flower beds, and full of luxury cars.
The city is a vertical structure. Densely packed steel and glass skyscrapers dot the skyline. Among them is Burj Khalifa, the iconic landmark of Dubai, stretching over 800 m into the sky, the tallest building on the planet.
I look down on Dubai from floor 148 of Burj Khalifa, sipping a drink and chewing Middle Eastern sweets that eager hostesses keep bringing on silver trays. I see the sapphire sea, sky-high buildings with names like HSBC and Rolex on them, and construction cranes in every plot of land that hasn’t been built on yet.
In the afternoon I take the clean, rapid metro from Dubai Mall to Mall of the Emirates. The metro connects underground worlds entirely constructed by humans, complete with artificial plants and conditioned, perfumed air pulsating with Western music, where you can buy products of every single brand on Earth at heavily discounted (tax-free) prices. That world screams ‘consume, consume’! And most people do. It is in the malls that I finally see some Emirati couples. Men clad in white in the characteristic head cap and women in black, both sexes covered from head to toe. The women wear a niqab from under which you can only see heavily made-up eyes, often behind expensive designer glasses. The outfit is complete with a Luis Vuitton bag and a bunch of golden and diamond bracelets. These couples seem to have no difficulty living in two worlds at the same time. They consume all this Western wealth in the mall and then return home for prayer. Their lives are easy – free quality education (New York University, London Business School, Paris-Sorbonne and other top universities have branches in Dubai) and medical care (top notch doctors work at local branches of world class clinics here), no taxes, great infrastructure, practically no crime. All this is thanks to petrodollars that UAE have been pocketing for years, but also clever investment of these in infrastructure, construction, finance and tourism.
Dubai wants to have the best of everything. No matter that this city built out of nothing in the middle of the desert has no historic landmarks. Abu Dhabi already has a branch of the Louvre museum. Dubai’s Mall of the Emirates boasts a complete French ski resort with artificial snow, ski lifts, multiple runs, a chalet and a restaurant. As I sit in a restaurant overlooking Burj Al-Arab, the famous sail-shaped seven-star hotel, and sip bottled water imported from Tuscany, I have a hard time believing that all this has been built on sand. I’m transported across the canal in a mock traditional boat from one upscale restaurant to another inside a hotel dripping with gold and crystal, and I let myself be immersed in this surreal dream-like world from One Thousand and One Nights.
However, it doesn’t take long to discover the dark side of Dubai’s prosperity. This booming economy is built on some of the worst human rights abuses in the world. Dubai, Abu Dhabi and other emirates are erected by a silent army of migrant workers who toil for 12 hours a day in scorching heat on construction sites, in restaurants, hotels and other industries. No matter how long they stay, they will never be able to acquire citizenship or any citizen rights. They will work for meagre wages with no healthcare, no benefits, no education for their children, no pension when they get old, risking expulsion at any time. The Pakistani taxi driver and the Indian tour guide tell the same story of exploitation, alienation and fear. Some of the foreign workers work for as little as 500 AED a month, the price of a ticket to Burj Khalifa. Most have to give up their passports and work for at least 18 months before they can take a holiday. They know that when they get older, they will be forced to leave with nothing. Yet they put up with this day in, day out, because somewhere in India or Pakistan they have a family whose exclusive income is the money sent home by the migrant.
And there is more. The reason why Dubai is one of the safest cities on the planet is its extremely strict Sharia law-based legal system. Flogging and stoning are still part of UAE’s penal code for crimes such as adultery, premarital sex or prostitution. Homosexuality is a crime punishable by death, and so is apostasy. Women must obtain permission from a male guardian to remarry, and they are not allowed to marry a non Muslim. Western couples have been deported or jailed for holding hands in the street or stealing a kiss in a restaurant. There is no press freedom and no free elections. In Dubai every aspect of life (with the exception of foreign trading) is controlled with an iron-clad fist of the state.
But there is also a different Dubai, from before skyscrapers, oil and investment banking. Dubai of the desert, the original one, not the one transformed into an artificially watered, air conditioned illusion of a paradise.
I get up at 5 am and meet my guide half an hour later. He is waiting in a big Landcruiser that can brave rocks and sand. We set out in complete darkness. An hour later we leave the tarmac road, lower the pressure in the car’s tyres, and we enter the moon-like dunes. It is a mad ride as the car slides and rocks on slippery sand. We reach a hill and stop to watch the sun rise. The sky turns pink, orange and crimson, as the blood-red ball of the sun slowly raises over the dunes. The sun rays colour the sand sparkling orange, red and yellow. Not a sound is breaking the silence. I take off my shoes and immerse my toes in the wet, cool sand. Then I run up and down the dunes, falling over, far away from human settlement and happy. Then we drive on in the morning sun, stopping for a while to look at a camel farm where a mother is nursing a newborn.
A few hours later I stop at the Museum of Dubai to get some insight into life before the arrival of big money. For centuries, Dubai was a small settlement of fishermen, pearl divers and bedouins living their lives in relative harmony with nature. People fished, dived for pearls and sold their catch. They bred and traded in camels that could survive without water for weeks. They learned how to put camp close to oases and water wells. They knew how to work with the desert and the sea, not against them.
As I watch the sun set over Dubai from top of Burj Khalifa, I wonder if the the city of pearl divers and camel keepers wasn’t in fact a far better place than it is now.